Where no evidence was presented to establish a prima facie case of negligence in this car collision case, a $7 million jury verdict for appellee is reversed.
There were three possible theories of causation: appellant caused the accident, appellant and the other driver caused the accident, or appellant was not a proximate cause despite her failure to keep a proper lookout.
“[T]he unknown role that [the other driver] played in the crash is the crucial missing link in appellee’s evidence, without which the jury’s determination of proximate cause could only have been based on impermissible speculation.”
Appellant’s vehicle collided with another vehicle driven by Spurlock. “When the two cars collided, the front of appellant’s car struck the rear passenger-side door on the right-hand side of Spurlock’s vehicle – where appellee was seated. … Appellee sustained significant physical and neurological injuries as a result of the collision.”
Appellee sued Spurlock and appellant. However, a few days before trial, appellee nonsuited Spurlock. “Subsequently, appellee presented extensive evidence during trial to demonstrate that appellant needed to wear her reading glasses to see properly while driving and that she was not, by her own admission, wearing them on the day of accident. Appellee presented no evidence about Spurlock’s actions leading up to the crash. …
“At trial, Burke, the only other witness at the accident scene, testified that he had been driving westbound on Wellington Avenue in the right-hand thru lane at approximately 4:30 p.m. on November 10, 2014.
“When he reached the intersection at Market Place Avenue, he had a solid green traffic light and he moved into the right-hand turn lane so he could turn into the shopping center on his right.
“As he did so, he saw Spurlock’s vehicle in the eastbound left-hand turn lane on Wellington Road. He described her as having ‘slowed to a stop or was creeping at that point. … She was yielding to me.’ …
“He did not see appellant’s vehicle in the right thru lane behind him.
“When Burke started making his right-hand turn, he saw that Spurlock’s car ‘was at a hesitation or barely creeping at that point.’ Approximately four seconds after he started making that turn, Burke heard the crash of appellant’s and Spurlock’s vehicles colliding, but he did not see the moment of impact which had occurred behind him.
“He did not hear any horns honking or brakes screeching in those four seconds. During cross-examination by appellant’s counsel, Burke confirmed that at the last time he saw Spurlock’s vehicle prior to the crash ‘she had not yet entered the … left thru lane on westbound Wellington Road.’
“He also affirmed that he ‘did not see whether Ms. Spurlock’s vehicle or [appellant]’s vehicle entered the intersection first.’
“At the close of appellee’s case-in-chief, appellant made a motion to strike the evidence on the grounds that it was insufficient to make out a prima facie case of negligence. The trial court denied that motion, along with appellant’s motion to reconsider in which appellant drew attention to appellee’s choice to call Burke – who saw neither the collision itself nor the manner in which Spurlock entered the intersection – rather than Spurlock herself.
“Appellant thus argued that, because Burke’s testimony did not show that appellant ‘could have avoided the accident if she maintained a proper lookout,’ appellee had not presented evidence that would allow the jury to determine whether appellant’s actions were a proximate cause of the accident.
“Because appellee had ‘to show that [appellant] could have avoided the accident if she maintained a proper lookout,’ the complete absence of evidence about how Spurlock entered the intersection was critical to appellee’s case.
“Appellant also made a renewed motion to strike, on the same grounds, at the close of all the evidence. The court denied that motion as well.”
The jury found for appellee and awarded $7 million in damages”
“[T]he evidence presented … only establishes, at best, that the two vehicles collided in the intersection during Spurlock’s attempt to make a left turn across appellant’s lane of travel and that, prior to the crash, appellant had failed to keep a proper lookout because she wasn’t wearing her glasses.
“But to conclude that appellant was a proximate cause requires evidence that the accident would not have occurred but for her failure to keep a proper lookout.
“Stated another way, if the accident would still have happened even if appellant had worn her glasses and kept a proper lookout, then appellant cannot legally be a proximate cause. … Such a determination, however, cannot be made without knowing the location, movement, and speed of Spurlock’s vehicle in the four seconds leading up to the crash.
“Did she immediately start slowly crossing the westbound lanes of Wellington Road, thus becoming a visible obstacle that appellant had ample opportunity to see and avoid? Or did Spurlock hesitate, even for just a second, before suddenly darting into appellant’s path, thus depriving appellant of any opportunity to react in time to avoid the crash?
“Under the second set of circumstances, appellant’s negligence is entirely immaterial to the question of proximate cause because Spurlock’s unexpected dash across appellant’s lane of travel would have happened too quickly for appellant to avoid the collision by braking or swerving even if she had been wearing her glasses and had kept a proper lookout.
“In the absence of such information, appellee’s evidence merely creates three equally plausible theories of causation: (1) that appellant was the sole proximate cause of the accident, (2) that appellant’s and Spurlock’s actions were each proximate causes, thus rendering them joint tortfeasors, or (3) that appellant was not a proximate cause at all, notwithstanding her failure to keep a proper lookout.
“The third option exists if Spurlock was the sole proximate cause of the accident, as described above, whereby her intervening negligence would sever the causal connection between appellant’s actions and the car crash. …
“As theorized above, if Spurlock had dashed in front of appellant’s vehicle such that no reasonable person exercising due care and keeping a proper lookout could have avoided the collision, then Spurlock becomes a subsequent intervening cause and bars a finding of negligence against appellant.
“Thus, the unknown role that Spurlock played in the crash is the crucial missing link in appellee’s evidence, without which the jury’s determination of proximate cause could only have been based on impermissible speculation. …
“Accordingly, the trial court erred in allowing the case to reach the jury and in denying appellant’s motion to set aside the verdict. …
“For the foregoing reasons, this Court reverses the verdict entered below and enters judgment in favor of appellant.”
Reversed and dismissed.
Furr v. Al-Saray, Record No. 0198-22-4, May 16, 2023. CAV (unpublished opinion) (Huff; AtLee dissenting). From the Circuit Court of Prince William County (Willett). Julie S. Palmer for appellant. Douglas B. Wessel for appellee. VLW 023-7-175, 28 pp.